The Death and Life of Great American Cities was described by The New York Times as “perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning. . . . [It] can also be seen in a much larger context. It is first of all a work of literature; the descriptions of street life as a kind of ballet and the bitingly satiric account of traditional planning theory can still be read for pleasure even by those who long ago absorbed and appropriated the book’s arguments.” Jane Jacobs, an editor and writer on architecture in New York City in the early sixties, argued that urban diversity and vitality were being destroyed by powerful architects and city planners. Rigorous, sane, and delightfully epigrammatic, Jane Jacobs’s tour de force is a blueprint for the humanistic management of cities. It remains sensible, knowledgeable, readable, and indispensable.
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About the Author
Jason Epstein is the recipient of many awards, including the National Book Award for Distinguished Service to American Letters, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Book Critics Circle, and the Curtis Benjamin Award given by the American Association of Publishers for enriching the world of books. For many years he was editorial director of Random House. He is the author of Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future and Eating.
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Foreword to the Modern Library Edition
When I began work on this book in 1958, I expected merely to describe the civilizing and enjoyable services that good city street life casually provides-and to deplore planning fads and architectural fashions that were expunging these necessities and charms instead of helping to strengthen them. Some of Part One of this book: that's all I intended.
But learning and thinking about city streets and the trickiness of city parks launched me into an unexpected treasure hunt. I quickly found that the valuables in plain sight-streets and parks-were intimately mingled with clues and keys to other peculiarities of cities. Thus one discovery led to another, then another.Some of the findings from the hunt fill the rest of this book. Others, as they turned up, have gone into four further books. Obviously, this book exerted an influence on me, and lured me into my subsequent life's work. But has it been influential otherwise? My own appraisal is yes and no.
Some people prefer doing their workaday errands on foot, or feel they would like to if they lived in a place where they could. Other people prefer hopping into the car to do errands, or would like to if they had a car. In the old days, before automobiles, some people liked ordering up carriages or sedan chairs and many wished they could. But as we know from novels, biographies, and legends, some people whose social positions required them to ride-except for rural rambles-wistfully peered out at passing street scenes and longed to participate in their camaraderie, bustle, and promises of surprise and adventure.
In a kind of shorthand, we can speak of foot people and car people. This book was instantly understood by foot people, both actual and wishful. They recognized that what it said jibed with their own enjoyment, concerns, and experiences, which is hardly surprising, since much of the book's information came from observing and listening to foot people. They were collaborators in the research. Then, reciprocally, the book collaborated with foot people by giving legitimacy to what they already knew for themselves. Experts of the time did not respect what foot people knew and valued. They were deemed old-fashioned and selfish-troublesome sand in the wheels of progress. It is not easy for uncredentialed people to stand up to the credentialed, even when the so-called expertise is grounded in ignorance and folly. This book turned out to be helpful ammunition against such experts. But it is less accurate to call this effect "influence" than to see it as corroboration and collaboration. Conversely, the book neither collaborated with car people nor had an influence on them. It still does not, as far as I can see.
The case of students of city planning and architecture is similarly mixed, but with special oddities. At the time of the book's publication, no matter whether the students were foot or car people by experience and temperament, they were being rigorously trained as anti-city and anti-street designers and planners: trained as if they were fanatic car people and so was everybody else. Their teachers had been trained or indoctrinated that way too. So in effect, the whole establishment concerned with the physical form of cities (including bankers, developers, and politicians who had assimilated the planning and architectural visions and theories) acted as gatekeepers protecting forms and visions inimical to city life. However, among architectural students especially, and to some extent among planning students, there were foot people. To them, the book made sense. Their teachers (though not all) tended to consider it trash or "bitter, coffee-house rambling" as one planner put it. Yet the book, curiously enough, found its way onto required or optional reading lists-sometimes, I suspect, to arm students with awareness of the benighted ideas they would be up against as practitioners. Indeed, one university teacher told me just that. But for foot people among students, the book was subversive. Of course their subversion was by no means all my doing. Other authors and researchers-notably William H. Whyte-were also exposing the unworkability and joylessness of anti-city visions. In London, editors and writers of The Architectural Review were already up to the same thing in the mid-1950s.
Nowadays, many architects, and some among the younger generation of planners, have excellent ideas-beautiful, ingenious ideas-for strengthening city life. They also have the skills to carry out their plans. These people are a far cry from the ruthless, heedless city manipulators I have castigated.
But here we come to something sad. Although the numbers of arrogant old gatekeepers have dwindled with time, the gates themselves are another matter. Anti-city planning remains amazingly sturdy in American cities. It is still embodied in thousands of regulations, bylaws, and codes, also in bureaucratic timidities owing to accepted practices, and in unexamined public attitudes hardened by time. Thus, one may be sure that there have been enormous and dedicated efforts in the face of these obstacles wherever one sees stretches of old city buildings that have been usefully recycled for new and different purposes; wherever sidewalks have been widened and vehicular roadways narrowed precisely where they should be-on streets in which pedestrian traffic is bustling and plentiful; wherever downtowns are not deserted after their offices close; wherever new, fine-grained mixtures of street uses have been fostered successfully; wherever new buildings have been sensitively inserted among old ones to knit up holes and tatters in a city neighborhood so that the mending is all but invisible. Some foreign cities have become pretty good at these feats. But to try to accomplish such sensible things in America is a daunting ordeal at best, and often enough heartbreaking.
In Chapter Twenty of this book I proposed that the ground levels of self-isolating projects within cities could be radically erased and reconstituted with two objects in view: linking the projects into the normal city by fitting them out with plentiful, new, connecting streets; and converting the projects themselves into urban places at the same time, by adding diverse new facilities along those added streets. The catch here, of course, is that new commercial facilities would need to work out economically, as a measure of their genuine and not fake usefulness.
It is disappointing that this sort of radical replanning has not been tried-as far as I know-in the more than thirty years since this book was published. To be sure, with every decade that passes, the task of carrying out the proposal would seem to be more difficult. That is because anti-city projects, especially massive public housing projects, tend to cause their city surroundings to deteriorate, so that as time passes, less and less healthy adjoining city is available to tie into.
Even so, good opportunities still exist for converting city projects into city. Easy ones ought to be tried first on the premise that this is a learning challenge, and it is good policy for all learning to start with easy cases and work up to more difficult ones. The time is coming when we will sorely need to apply this learning to suburban sprawls since it is unlikely we can continue extending them without limit. The costs in energy waste, infrastructure waste, and land waste are too high. Yet if already existing sprawls are intensified, in favor of thriftier use of resources, we need to have learned how to make the intensifications and linkages attractive, enjoyable, safe, and sustainable-for foot people as well as car people.
Occasionally this book has been credited with having helped halt urban-renewal and slum-clearance programs. I would be delighted to take credit if this were true. It isn't. Urban renewal and slum clearance succumbed to their own failures and fiascos, after continuing with their extravagant outrages for many years after this book was published. Even now they pop up when wishful thinking and forgetfulness set in, abetted by sufficient cataclysmic money lent to developers and sufficient political hubris and public subsidies. A recent example, for instance, is the grandiose but bankrupt Canary Wharf project set in isolation in what were London's dilapidated docklands and the demolished, modest Isle of Dogs community, beloved by its inhabitants.
To return to the treasure hunt that began with the streets and one thing leading to another and another: at some point along the trail I realized I was engaged in studying the ecology of cities. Offhand, this sounds like taking note that raccoons nourish themselves from city backyard gardens and garbage bags (in my own city they do, sometimes even downtown), that hawks can possibly reduce pigeon populations among skyscrapers, and so on. But by city ecology I mean something different from, yet similar to, natural ecology as students of wilderness address the subject. A natural ecosystem is defined as "composed of physical-chemical-biological processes active within a space-time unit of any magnitude." A city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethical processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies. I've made up this definition, by analogy.
The two sorts of ecosystems-one created by nature, the other by human beings-have fundamental principles in common. For instance, both types of ecosystems-assuming they are not barren-require much diversity to sustain themselves. In both cases, the diversity develops organically over time, and the varied components are interdependent in complex ways. The more niches for diversity of life and livelihoods in either kind of ecosystem, the greater its carrying capacity for life. In both types of ecosystems, many small and obscure components-easily overlooked by superficial observation can be vital to the whole, far out of proportion to their own tininess of scale or aggregate quantities. In natural ecosystems, gene pools are fundamental treasures. In city ecosystems, kinds of work are fundamental treasures; furthermore, forms of work not only reproduce themselves in newly created proliferating organizations, they also hybridize, and even mutate into unprecedented kinds of work. And because of their complex interdependencies of components, both kinds of ecosystems are vulnerable and fragile, easily disrupted or destroyed.
If not fatally disrupted, however, they are tough and resilient. And when their processes are working well, ecosystems appear stable. But in a profound sense, the stability is an illusion. As a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, observed long ago, everything in the natural world is in flux. When we suppose we see static situations, we actually see processes of beginning and processes of ending occurring simultaneously. Nothing is static. It is the same with cities. Thus, to investigate either natural or city ecosystems demands the same kind of thinking. It does not do to focus on "things" and expect them to explain much in themselves. Processes are always of the essence; things have significances as participants in processes, for better or worse.
This way of seeing is fairly young and new, which is perhaps why the hunt for knowledge to understand either natural or city ecology seems so inexhaustible. Little is known; so much yet to know.
We human beings are the only city-building creatures in the world. The hives of social insects are fundamentally different in how they develop, what they do, and their potentialities. Cities are in a sense natural ecosystems too-for us. They are not disposable. Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon; they have pulled their weight and more. It is the same still. Decaying cities, declining economies, and mounting social troubles travel together. The combination is not coincidental.
It is urgent that human beings understand as much as we can about city ecology-starting at any point in city processes. The humble, vital services performed by grace of good city streets and neighborhoods are probably as good a starting point as any. So I find it heartening that The Modem Library is issuing this beautiful new edition for a new generation of readers who, I hope, will become interested in city ecology, respect its marvels, discover more.
Toronto, Canada October 1992